Skip to main content

Africa's not for sissies.

Free Fire
(2016)

(SPOILERS) I had low expectations for Free Fire, as nothing I’ve seen by Ben Wheatley has equalled the hype surrounding him. Yet this, which has garnered a somewhat mixed reaction, is streets ahead of his previous form, a very funny, delightfully-staged “bottle episode” period crime movie with an eclectic cast bouncing deliriously off each other.


Wheatley’s critical moment really occurred with Kill List, which ever so slightly left me with that feeling you get when you weren’t in on the joke. If that’s his outright horror picture, there’s nevertheless a streak of the macabre persisting through all his genre diversions to date (his next is a sci-fi featuring Alicia Vikander battling giant crabs with a shotgun …)  Free Fire’s no different, but here he’s wallowing in the ineptitude of violence, taking the warehouse setting of Reservoir Dogs but straining the tension through ghoulish giggles. An arms deal goes south not for reasons of double-crossing (although that does come into the mix) but due to a dispute between a couple of supporting idiots on the fringes of both parties.


Wheatley’s frequent good luck charm Michael Smiley excels as IRA man Frank, who with a very breezy Cillian Murphy (Chris) is arranging to purchase some MI6s that turn out to be AR70s (no, I wouldn’t know the difference either) from Sharlto Copley’s Vernon (in full-on South African scumbag mode). In the formers’ camp are Brie Larson (Justine), Enzo Cilenti (Bernie) and a hilariously useless Sam Riley (Stevo). Riley’s accent most certainly isn’t going to win him any awards, but his dishevelled inadequate is gifted some marvellously puerile lines (and, ultimately, the most OTT death scene).


On Copley’s team are Armie Hammer’s Ord (magnificently superior and, with Chris, one of the few present who seems to be able to shoot straight), Babou Ceesay’s Martin, who looks like a goner when he’s shot in the head, until he isn’t, Jack Reynor’s Harry (sporting odious chin whiskers and an attitude that winds pretty much everyone up, even on his side; he’s the one kicks things off when he shoots Stevo) and Noah Taylor’s Gordon. Also showing up is Patrick Bergin, who I completely failed to recognise, but it has been about 25 years since I saw him in anything.


Wheatley and regular co-writer Amy Jump (also editing collaborators; laudably, the geography of the action is only confusing when it’s supposed to be confusing) deliver wall-to-wall one-liners and putdowns (it’s hard to believe Murphy didn’t think it was a comedy when he read it, even given the fair amount of improvisation that was encouraged on set), and not a little John Denver to punctuate the proceedings (the score itself from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury displays moments of greatness too, particularly The Phone Rings).


Stevo assumes Vernon, “an international asshole” who was mistaken for a child genius and never got over it, is Austrian because of his accent. Copley revels in being a complete tool, attempting the tough act (“Africa’s not for sissies”) before squealing over a flesh wound, suggesting Hammer deal with the situation (“You distract him with your badinage and I leave”) and professing survival skills developed with Rhodesian special forces (“Hey Vern, I like your cardboard armour”).


Chisel-jawed Ord also comes in for much mockery (“Hey Ord, I bet you thought you were too handsome to get shot, huh?”; “Save it for your fucking autobiography”) and the only problem with the best line, attributed to Stevo (“I forgot whose side I’m on”), is that it comes too early, accompanied by insufficient mayhem to land at the most effective moment.


The ‘70s duds and hair are on the fancy dress side, sure, but the location (actually in Brighton) is a truly fetid dump of dirty needles, rubble and puddles, offering little cover while everyone scrambles for some, the best they can, amid wild gunfire and ridiculous ricochets. Wheatley excels in his camera placement picks, establishing tension and claustrophobia from limited lines of sight and movement. His only concessions to the main arena are an upstairs room containing a ringing telephone and the entrance corridor, but when action proceeds to those locations it’s just as contained, usually because characters have been reduced to crawling the distance.


Perhaps on the basis of past such setups (Reservoir Dogs not least), I was expecting a reveal of an undercover cop that never came, but Justine’s double-cross – though it had occurred to me she might be that non-existent cop – did come as a final shocker, especially since Ord and Chris are just about to grab a conciliatory beer. Chris is so gracious in his demise (“I’m sorry, you got in the way” admits Justine, not such a sharp shooter) you rather wish better for him (although, as with Dogs, the police arrive just in time to spoil Justine’s clean getaway).


That said, everyone here is so entertaining (maybe Taylor fails to etch out a memorable character), you don’t really want to see any of them die. I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but a few more like this and I might be a Wheatley convert. I’m not sure his dabblings are any deeper or more invested in “character” than, say, David O Russell’s genre washes, but there’s more personality and less cynicism. And he also knows not to outstay his welcome.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

You ruined every suck-my-silky-ass thing!

The Matrix Resurrections (2021) (SPOILERS) Warner Bros has been here before. Déjà vu? What happens when you let a filmmaker do whatever they want? And I don’t mean in the manner of Netflix. No, in the sequel sense. You get a Gremlins 2: The New Batch (a classic, obviously, but not one that financially furthered a franchise). And conversely, when you simply cash in on a brand, consequences be damned? Exorcist II: The Heretic speaks for itself. So in the case of The Matrix Resurrections – not far from as meta as The New Batch , but much less irreverent – when Thomas “Tom” Anderson, designer of globally successful gaming trilogy The Matrix , is told “ Our beloved company, Warner Bros, has decided to make a sequel to the trilogy ” and it’s going ahead “with or without us”, you can be fairly sure this is the gospel. That Lana, now going it alone, decided it was better to “make the best of it” than let her baby be sullied. Of course, quite what that amounts to in the case of a movie(s) tha

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

It’s always possible to find a good moral reason for killing anybody.

The Assassination Bureau (1969) (SPOILERS) The Assassination Bureau ought to be a great movie. You can see its influence on those who either think it is a great movie, or want to produce something that fulfils its potential. Alan Moore and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen . The just-released (and just-flopped) The King’s Men . It inhabits a post-Avengers, self-consciously benign rehearsal of, and ambivalence towards, Empire manners and attitudes, something that could previously be seen that decade in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (and sequel Monte Carlo or Bust , also 1969), Adam Adamant Lives! , and even earlier with Kind Hearts and Coronets , whilst also feeding into that “Peacock Revolution” of Edwardian/Victorian fashion refurbishment. Unfortunately, though, it lacks the pop-stylistic savvy that made, say, The President’s Analyst so vivacious.

This guy’s armed with a hairdryer.

An Innocent Man (1989) (SPOILERS) Was it a chicken-and-egg thing with Tom Selleck and movies? Did he consistently end up in ropey pictures because other, bigger big-screen stars had first dibs on the good stuff? Or was it because he was a resolutely small-screen guy with limited range and zero good taste? Selleck had about half-a-dozen cinema outings during the 1980s, one of which, the very TV, very Touchstone Three Men and a Baby was a hit, but couldn’t be put wholly down to him. The final one was An Innocent Man , where he attempted to show some grit and mettle, as nice-guy Tom is framed and has to get tough to survive. Unfortunately, it’s another big-screen TV movie.